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Category: Tribal India (Page 3 of 4)

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Independence and Unrest

On August 15, 1947, after three-quarters of a century of British rule, the Garo Hills became a part of independent India. The hills—and by extension, the people who lived in them—now belonged to the new nation-state. But national identity would not develop immediately among the Garos. Aside from their differences in language, culture, and ethnicity from the majority of the Indian population, the Garos’ recent history also separated them. Because of the colonial policy of partial exclusion, the Garos did not participate in, and remained largely unaware of, the Congress-led independence movement.

Although the majority of Garos now lived in India, the Partition of India and Pakistan left tribal communities isolated on the other side of the international border in East Pakistan. The Garos who lived in the Bengali district of Mymensingh differed in some ways from the hill Garos; nevertheless, they hoped that all Garos would be included in the same country at independence. In the immediate prelude to independence, a Garo delegation from Mymensingh met with the Radcliffe Commission in Calcutta and requested that their district be annexed into Assam. Radcliffe refused their request, on the grounds that Mymensingh was too small, and therefore inconsequential.1

In East Pakistan, and later in independent Bangladesh, the Garos were marginalized. During the Bangladeshi independence struggle in 1971, many Garos joined the Mukti Bahini (the Bangladeshi insurgent army) and fought alongside the Bengalis. When India invaded East Pakistan, Garo refugees poured across the border into the Garo Hills. After the end of the conflict, the refugees returned to their villages, hoping that they would receive a more prominent place in the new Bangladeshi nation-state. They were soon disillusioned when, in 1973, Sheikh Mujib announced that Bangladeshi national identity would be based on Bengali language and culture. Garos and other tribal groups received no special protection—and they continue to feel that they are second-class citizens.2

In India, the Garos remained on the fringes of the nation-state, but they were not marginalized to the same extent as in Bangladesh. The Garos of India have offered modest resistance to their condition as a marginalized group. Compared with other minority groups in northeast India, the Garos’ resistance has been tame. For instance, the Mizos fought the Indian Army for twenty years, before finally making peace. By comparison, Garo insurgent groups have been little more than gangs, painting graffiti on public buildings and occasionally staging road blockades.

Anti-Congress graffiti on a post office in the East Garo Hills.

Anti-Congress graffiti on a post office in the East Garo Hills.

At independence, the Garo Hills was a district of Assam; a significant Garo population also lived in the adjoining districts to the north. Assam was a multi-ethnic, polyglot state; diverse hill tribes surrounded the predominantly Assamese-speaking communities in the Brahmaputra and Barak River Valleys. In 1960, the Assam Official Languages Act, passed by the state legislature, declared Assamese as the official state language. The act was meant to hasten the linguistic unification of the state, but it had rather the opposite effect by spurring unrest among the minority language groups in the state. Although the Garos had little in common with the Khasis and Jaintias besides geographical proximity, they banded together in the Hill States Movement, calling for a separate state within the Indian union for the tribals of the Meghalaya Plateau.3 In 1970, Meghalaya broke off from Assam into an autonomous state. Two years later, it became a full-fledged state. Capt. Williamson A. Sangma, a military veteran and long-time MP in the Assam state legislature, became Meghalaya’s first Chief Minister.4.

In forty years as a part of the state of Meghalaya, the Garo Hills have developed slowly. While Shillong, the state capital and district headquarters of East Khasi Hills, is a cosmopolitan hill station with high-speed internet access, a multi-stage hydroelectricity project, and the headquarters of the Eastern Air Command of the Indian Air Force, the Garo Hills remain underdeveloped and overlooked. According to the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (a central government agency), the three districts of the Garo Hills have the least-developed infrastructure among the seven districts in Meghalaya. Among the eighty districts of the eight states of northeast India (including Sikkim), the West, South, and East Garo Hills rank 37th, 42nd, and 43rd, respectively, in terms of infrastructure development. By comparison, East Khasi Hills ranks fifth in the entire region.5 Most development funds for Meghalaya are spent in the larger and more populous Khasi-Jaintia Hills. This leads to a feeling of alienation that occasionally spills over into unrest.

At Partition, the one major highway to Tura—the Garo Hills’ only major urban area—ran southward into what was now East Pakistan. In sixty-five years of independence, a network of national highways, state highways, and local roads were constructed to connect the major towns and villages in the hills, thus connecting Tura directly with the rest of India. Because of the difficult terrain between the Garo and Khasi Hills, no national highway connects the two hills directly; instead, the easiest route from the Garo Hills to the Khasi Hills runs through Assam. Roads are the primary means of mechanized transportation in the Garo Hills. India’s rail network does not touch the state; the rivers running out of the hills are not navigable for large boats. Baljek Airport, the Garo Hills’ only facility for fixed-wing aircraft, remains shuttered.

The Garo Hills have minimal modern industry—some textile mills, the occasional concrete plant, as well as printing houses in Tura. As mentioned in an earlier post, much of the population of the area relies heavily on traditional technologies. Nevertheless, despite the isolation and underdevelopment of the area, the Garo Hills have many contacts with modernity. Satellite television brings Indian and foreign news, TV shows, and movies—as well as an limitless supply of cricket—to mountainous areas that would never have received either a cable hookup or broadcast reception. Similarly, mobile phone networks have brought telecommunications to areas that were never served by landlines. In addition to voice communication and SMS, the mobile phone networks are also used for internet access by means of USB datacards. In some towns, locals can rent time on computers at Common Services Centers.6 With the exception of mobile phones, which seem to be in almost universal use in the hills, use of modern telecommunications technologies has spread slowly in the Garo Hills. Nevertheless, the introduction of these technologies in the Garo Hills shows that the area, as isolated as it may be, is still very much a part of the modern world.

Microwave and cell towers on a Garo hillside.

Microwave and cell towers on a Garo hillside.

This weathered bungalow in the Garo Hills sports its own satellite dish.

This weathered bungalow in the Garo Hills sports its own satellite dish.

In coming into closer contact with the modern world, the Garos have not simply become passive consumers of mass culture. In Garo-Land, amateurs and professionals use modern communications and media technologies to develop their own distinctive culture. Artists produce Garo pop music at studios in Tura and elsewhere. This music is distributed by CD or as mp3s, which young men exchange at CSCs and play on their phones. Garo music videos—many produced with consumer-grade equipment—are also watched and shared at CSCs. Some of these videos have even found their way onto YouTube.

In this video, the dancing is clearly influenced by Bollywood, but the musical track is distinctively Garo:

In addition to capital-intensive, sophisticated technologies like mobile phone networks, people in the Garo Hills use some of what might be called appropriate technologies. These technologies are small-scale and adapted to local conditions.7 An example of appropriate technology are the suspension footbridges that cross some of the swift streams running down out of the Garo Hills. Smaller than capital-intensive concrete road bridges built by state governments, they can be built by local funds, and largely by local labor. Provided they are built soundly and do not collapse (as one did in March of this year8), the bridges can serve communities for years.

A suspension footbridge over the Jinari River, at Rari.

A suspension footbridge over the Jinari River, at Rari.

Appropriate technology projects like the suspension footbridges, I think, represent the future of the Garo Hills. After sixty-five years as a part of independent India, the Garo Hills still have not industrialized; the area may never industrialize. Development capital in the Northeast has consistently been diverted away from the Garo Hills toward more prosperous areas such as the Khasi Hills. Appropriate technology offers Garos the opportunity to develop their land on their own terms.

  1. Ellen Bal, “Becoming the Garos of Bangladesh: Policies of Exclusion and Ethnicisation of a ‘Tribal’ Minority,” Journal of South Asian Studies 30, no. 3 (2007), 447. []
  2. Ibid., 452-55. []
  3. The Khasis and Jaintias are two related tribal groups living in eastern Meghalaya. Like the Garos, they have a matrilineal and matrinomial (but not matriarchal) culture; unlike the Garos, they speak languages derived from Mon Khmer, in the Austro-Asiatic group. []
  4. Shekhar Gupta, Assam: A Valley Divided (Ghaziabad, UP: Vikas Publishing House, 1984), 143; M. Taher and P. Ahmed, Geography of North-East India, 4th ed. (Guwahati, India: Mani Manik Prakash, 2007), 8 []
  5. Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, “NER District Infrastructure Index,” http://mdoner.gov.in/writereaddata/sublinkimages/Infrastructure%20index7631933225.doc (accessed May 31, 2012). []
  6. Datacard internet connections are generally too slow and unreliable for many of Web 2.0’s more celebrated services, such as YouTube. My discussion here represents the state of technology during my sojourn in the Garo Hills, 2009-2010. When I returned for a brief visit in 2012, I found that things had changed somewhat. USB datacards were cheaper and more accessible, albeit still unreliable. The local CSC that I frequented was closed; its former location was now occupied by a beauty parlor. I did not find out about the disposition of any other CSCs in the Garo Hills. []
  7. The German-born economist E.F. Schumacher is credited with introducing the term “intermediate technology,” which is synonymous with “appropriate technology” as I use it here. Schumacher’s essays and lectures on economics and intermediate technology were compiled into the book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973). The book is essential reading for anybody interested in international development. []
  8. See, for instance, “Principal nailed in bridge fiasco,” Calcutta Telegraph, April 4, 2012, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120404/jsp/northeast/story_15332790.jsp. []
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Soldiers and Missionaries

In the nineteenth century, the Garos finally began to appear as main characters in histories, rather than just as supporting characters in other people’s histories. People of European descent—primarily British colonialists and American missionaries—came into contact with the Garos and left records of their encounters. These explorers’ accounts and mission stories are not without their own problems—but at least Garos had finally begun to appear on center-stage in historical accounts.

By the beginning of the British Raj in 1858, the British had annexed territory completely surrounding the Garo Hills, but not the hills themselves. The Garos at this time were broken into countless disorganized tribes, who engaged in constant warfare with each other for the purpose of headhunting. As long as the Garos kept to themselves, the British were happy to leave them alone. Sometimes, though, groups of Garos found it easier—if less sporting—to take heads of Bengali and Assamese peasants from the plains below.

In 1822, the colonial government issued Regulation X, which brought the haats (market towns) at the base of the hills under direct colonial control, thus removing them from the control of the zamindars (landlords). David Scott, a colonial officer who had already been involved in the annexation of the Khasi Hills, was the first Special Commissioner of the border haats. The system of maintaining the border areas of the hills worked reasonably well until the 1860s, when raids by Garo groups from the interior hills threatened the lowlanders once again. A more hands-on administrative approach was in order. The Raj government formally annexed the entirety of the Garo Hills or Garrowana, in 1866. The following year, Lieutenant W.J. Williamson established his administrative headquarters at Tura, just below the central, highest range of the hills. Local chiefs began to pay tribute to him, and to refer disputes to him for arbitration. Williamson visited villages throughout the hills, where he convinced the Garos to submit to British administration and burn their collections of trophy skulls. Finally, in 1872 and 1873, a military expedition brought the Garo Hills firmly under British control.1

Equally important, in the long run, to the history of the Garos was the introduction of Christianity to the hills. The Christianization of the Garos was not a simple matter of foreigners imposing their own beliefs and values on a native people; much of the work of evangelism was performed by missionaries who had converted on their own. Although the missionaries who worked with the Garos were products of their times, they were not merely imperialists by another name. Mission work was its own distinct phenomenon, historically linked—but by no means identical in goals and outcome—to imperial conquest.2

The first Garo converts to Christianity were Omed and Ramke Momin, two cousins from the northern Garo Hills. Both found their own way to the religion during the 1850s; neither was directly converted by missionaries or evangelists. Omed, a sepoy, happened across Bengali evangelical tracts in the garbage swept out of a bungalow in his military camp. Ramke, for his part, had a rather more mystical discovery. Scared of demons and hoping to find a way out, he went into the jungle and prayed fervently for guidance. He had a vision in which he saw a tall man who told him, “Thy prayer is heard.” At first, Ramke thought this man was the Hindu god Rama; only later, under Omed’s guidance, did he identify the man as Jesus.3

View of the Brahmaputra River at Sukheswar Ghat, site of the first Garo baptisms in 1863.

View of the Brahmaputra River at Sukheswar Ghat, site of the first Garo baptisms in 1863.

Miles Bronson, an American missionary stationed at Nowgong (Naogaon), met Omed and Ramke in Gauahati in 1863. After satisfying himself that the young men understood the Gospel, he baptized them on February 8 in the Brahmaputra River at Sukheswar Ghat.4 The young Garo converts returned to their villages and attempted to convert them to Christianity. Despite fierce opposition from village elders, the first Garo evangelists began to make converts. They requested that professional missionaries be brought in from the the West. Dr. and Mrs. Stoddard, a middle-aged couple from New York state, responded to the call and set up the first Baptist mission to the Garos in Goalpara in 1867.5 In order to be closer to the population they intended to serve, the missionaries shifted their base of operations to Tura in 1876.6

Dr. and Mrs. Stoddard, first permanent foreign missionaries to the Garos. (Source: Garo Jungle Book)

Dr. and Mrs. Stoddard, first permanent foreign missionaries to the Garos. (Source: Garo Jungle Book)

Aside from the spread of Christianity in the Garo Hills—which remains a significant part of Garo identity and social life to this day—the missionaries’ most significant legacy was the development of a written form of Garo. In addition to simply assigning sounds to letters and identifying standardized spellings for words, the missionaries had to develop a new literary dialect of the Garo language. This dialect was a hybrid of several different existing hill dialects, and today it serves as the lingua franca for the Garos—in spoken as well as written forms. Literary Garo was originally written in the script used for Bengali and Assamese, languages spoken and written on three sides of the hills. By the turn of the twentieth century, the missionaries had abandoned the use of the Bengali script, and instead adopted the Roman script.7

An example of modern written Garo: a Bible verse posted on a tree in Bajengdoba. (The text reads, in KJV: "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" Matthew 16:26.)

An example of modern written Garo: a Bible verse posted on a tree in Bajengdoba. (The text reads, in KJV: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Matthew 16:26.)

Despite the political, religious, and cultural changes brought about in parts of Garo-Land by the imposition of British rule and the introduction of Christianity, by 1900 life continued forth in most of the Garo Hills much as it had for centuries. The colonial authorities adopted a policy of partial exclusion, thereby restricting unauthorized persons from entry into the hills. Until the 1930s, Christianity had not spread much beyond the Garo foothills fronting Assam. Despite the missionaries’ dreams that the Garos would harness their mountain streams to power mills, most of the Garos continued to rely on the traditional technologies that had served them for centuries.

A Garo church, a common sight in the hills.

A Garo church, a common sight in the hills.

Christianity and tribal customs meet: Traditional Garo drums are now used to celebrate the Nativity on Christmas Day.

Christianity and tribal customs meet: Traditional Garo drums are now used to celebrate the Nativity on Christmas Day.

  1. Parimal Chandra Kar, “A New Introduction,” in A. Playfair, The Garos (1909; repr. Guwahati: Spectrum Publications, 1975), ix-ix. []
  2. From my readings of missionary accounts, it seems that the missionaries earnestly believed that they were doing what was best for the people with whom they worked. They sometimes clashed with colonial authorities; the missionaries to the Garos believed that the tribals deserved more autonomy than the British were willing to give them. At the same time, the missionaries belonged to their times. When the Stoddards, the first permanent missionaries to the Garos, arrived by steamer at Goalpara, they were carried from the dock to their bungalow in sedan chairs. On expeditions in the hills, the white missionaries rode on ponies, followed by long trains of Garos or Nepalis on foot, carrying the baggage. The missionaries behaved this way, I think, not because they secretly despised the natives, but because they realized that was now Sahibs were expected to act. []
  3. William Carey, et al., A Garo Jungle Book, or: The Mission to the Garos of Assam (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1919), 58-59, 64. This book, available on Google Books, makes for fascinating reading. It is a heady mix of mission tales, sermonizing, and optimistic but unrealistic predictions for the future of Garo-Land. []
  4. Sukheswar Ghat (alternatively spelled Sukreswar or Sukreshwar) is the site of a temple to Shiva. It was originally built in 1744 by the Ahom king Pramatta Singh, and it has been rebuilt and expanded numerous times since then. []
  5. Goalpara, on the Brahmaputra River north of the Garo Hills, was an important port for the steamboat traffic that once traveled up and down the river. After Partition, when the mouth of the Brahmaputra became a part of East Pakistan, the steamer trade declined. Goalpara is district headquarters of the Assamese district by the same name, and it is still an important transportational hub, because the Jogighopa Bridge (mentioned in my previous post) crosses the river nearby. []
  6. Carey, Garo Jungle Book, 79, 85-86, 109, 132. []
  7. Kar, “New Introduction,” xiv. []
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Origins of the Garos

A traditional Garo hut.

A traditional Garo hut.

One day during my volunteer term at a school in the Garo Hills, I overheard two of my colleagues chatting in the teachers’ room before classes. One of these teachers was a Garo, and she informed her non-Garo fellow teacher that the Garos had originated in Tibet, and “plenty Garos” still lived there.

I do not know where this bit of cultural memory originated—whether it came from modern anthropology or the Garos’ own oral traditions. In any event, both the social sciences and Garo traditions claim that the Garos migrated from Tibet into the area that would become northeast India. In the absence of formal historical records (the Garo language did not have a written form until the late nineteenth century), we can nevertheless learn something of the Garos’ origins in the distant past.

The Garo language bears a striking resemblance to Tibetan. I first became aware of this similarity when I heard a Tibetan monk counting at a monastery in Darjeeling; I could almost have thought he was counting in Garo. Alan Playfair, district commissioner of the Garo Hills in the early twentieth century, compared Garo and Tibetan vocabularies in The Garos, the first thorough ethnography of the tribe. In an appendix to the book, Playfair identified fifty similar words between the two languages, such as the word for water: chi in Garo and chhu in Tibetan.1 In addition to linguistics, Playfair also identified a handful of other similarities between Garos and Tibetans, notably the Garos’ use of gongs and imported yak tails in their ceremonies.

On the whole, Garo tradition tells the more compelling, if less reliable, story of origins. In one legend, the Garos departed from Tibet and migrated across the mountains into the plains of Bengal. The local king allowed the Garos to reside in his country only temporarily. Once they had outstayed their welcome, they trekked up the right (western and northern) bank of the Brahmaputra River, until they reached the Manas River, which joins the Brahmaputra at Jogighopa.2 The local Assamese king was attracted to the daughter of one of the Garo chiefs. To save the girl, the Garos attempted to hide her in a cave, but the Assamese king attacked, defeated, and subjugated the wandering band. At length, the Garos managed to escape across the river on rafts made of banana stems. The Assamese army followed and attacked, but the Garos won the day and continued their wanderings. After further encounters with an Assamese king on the right (southern) bank of the Brahmaputra, the Garos wandered back westward, broke into several groups, and settled in the hills and the nearby plains.3

Playfair notes that it is impossible to match this legend with historical records. The legend mentions a Garo woman’s marriage to a member of an invading Muslim army, but it is unclear whether this was an invasion in the late fifteenth century or Mir Jumla’s invasion in the seventeenth century. Whatever the case, Garos were already territorially established during the period of the Ahom kingdom, because they appear on the margins of Ahom history. For instance, in 1671, the Garos came to the aid of the Ahom king as he successfully attempted to drive the Muslim invaders out of Kamrup.4

Once established in Garo-Land, the Garos developed a distinctive culture that shared elements with neighboring tribes, and also had some unique elements. Like the Khasis and Jaintias in the neighboring hill districts of the Meghalaya plateau, the Garos were—and for the most part still are—matrilineal and matrinomial. In the matrilineal social structure, inheritance of family property passes through the daughter. Similarly, in the matrilineal culture, women pass their clan names to their children. Thus, if a man named Ranjit Sangma and a woman named Tekchi Marak were to get married, Tekchi would retain her clan name Marak, and all of the children by the marriage would bear the name Marak rather than Sangma. Note that, while Garo society is matrilineal and matrinomial, it is not matriarchal. Men serve as nokmas (village chiefs), holding on to patriarchy.5

The clan names Marak and Sangma, used in the foregoing example, were not chosen at random. They are, in fact, the two overwhelmingly common exogamous clan names in Garo society. (The third clan name, Momin, is considerably less common.)6 Even though the Marak and Sangma clans both have hundreds of thousands of members, marriage within the clan is almost unthinkable. In addition, each of the clans is divided into dozens or hundreds of sub-clans. These sub-clans are usually used as middle names, and Garos often include the initial of their clan subdivision when they give their full name (as in the case of Williamson A. Sangma, whom we will meet in a later blog post). On occasion, families will choose to distinguish themselves from the Marak/Sangma mass by using their sub-clan name as their last name.7

At the same time as they were developing their culture, the Garos also developed their own distinctive technologies that matched the climate and topography of Garo-Land. Most or all of these technologies are still in use in the Garo Hills. The rivers flowing out of the hills provided opportunities as well as obstacles. The Garos exploited the fish populations for food, building ingenious dams and weirs to trap fish. They also diverted river waters into channels to water their crops. On the hillsides, they practiced jhum (slash-and-burn) cultivation.8

An irrigation ditch among paddy fields.

An irrigation ditch among paddy fields.

A hillside after the jhum.

A hillside after the jhum.

The Garos made extensive use of various species of bamboo for construction, weapons, tools, fuel, and food. They even used enclosed segments of rhino bamboo (Dendrocalamus hamiltonii) as cooking vessels. They placed rice and water inside the bamboo and turned it until it charred. Then they split the bamboo open and extracted the rice.9 Woven together, bamboo could be made into matting that was used for hut walls; the hut frames were betelnut tree trunks and the roof was grass thatch. The Garos also used wood and bamboo to construct bridges and boats for crossing their country’s many streams.

Bamboo ready for use in a construction project.

Bamboo ready for use in a construction project.

Wooden and bamboo bridge over the Jinari River (left). The bridge is built next to an incomplete concrete bridge (top center). Rafts carry bamboo to market.

Wooden and bamboo bridge over the Jinari River (left). The bridge is built next to an incomplete concrete bridge (top center). Rafts carry bamboo to market.

Having thus adapted to life in Garo-Land, the Garos had few needs that their own handicrafts could not satisfy—save for the yak tails and gongs used in their festivals. Although some Garo farmers grew cotton for trade at Assamese markets, most Garos kept aloof from the market economy.10 The Garos appear only on the margins of the histories of pre-colonial Assam—which is hardly surprising, because that was where most of them seemed content to stay.

  1. A. Playfair, The Garos (1909; repr. Guwahati: Spectrum Publications, 1975), 165-66. []
  2. Jogighopa is the site of a combined road and rail bridge across the Brahmaputra, the last of only three crossings over the river in the state of Assam. It was completed in 1998. In some seasons, the river swells with rainwater or snowmelt, so that it looks like an endless sea from the vantage point of the bridge. []
  3. Playfair, The Garos, 8-11. []
  4. Edward Gait, A History of Assam (1906; repr. Delhi: Surjeet Publications, 2006), 161. []
  5. Playfair, The Garos, 71-73. []
  6. One Garo folk tale describes the origins of the clan names. Sangmas are descended from the first person to live in a house with a raised floor. The first Marak was a woman who refused to commit incest by marrying her cousin. The Momins descend from the marriage of a Garo women with a Muslim invader of Assam. Sonaram R. Sangma (storyteller) and Dewan Sing Rongmuthu, “Origin of the Garo Phratries,” in The Folk Tales of the Garos, edited by Dewan Sing Rongmuthu (Guwahati: University of Gauhati Department of Publication, 1960), 293-95. []
  7. Playfair, The Garos, 66-67. For a partial list of clan subdivisions, see Ibid., 155-56. []
  8. Ibid., 34. []
  9. K.C. Sahni, The Book of Indian Trees (Mumbai: Oxford University Press, 1998), 190. []
  10. Playfair, Garos, 57. []

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